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First class travel booms in Nigeria amid global decline

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First class travel booms in Nigeria amid global decline

First Class travel is disappearing at a worrying rate. But in Nigeria, it is gaining strength, further typifying the craze by wealthy Nigerians to force carriers to retain the status symbol. In other climes, many travellers are shifting to Business Class, writes WOLE SHADARE     The changing times If you’re keen to fly first class, good luck in finding a seat. Across the board, first class has been steadily disappearing from commercial jets. In the long haul market, the majority of the big names have substantially reduced the number of first class seats on board, often by several hundred thousand. But the situation is different on the Nigerian market where majority of super rich Nigerians prefer to travel in class. They prefer First Class travel to match their status. These super rich are in government, banking sector, aviation, academia, oil and gas and other sectors of the economy. Foreign airlines see Nigeria as a very big market for premium travel. The revenue they rake in from First Class and Business are enough to sustain their operations even without the economic travel revenue. Majority are of the opinion that foreign airlines or any other airline would break even and remain profitable if they get the First and Business class seats filled without passengers in the economy class cabin. Huge load factor Foreign airlines operating into Nigeria have an average of 80 per cent load factor in their premium cabin. For this reason, the carriers keep expanding and marketing these premium cabins because they know that Nigeria would pay any amount to travel in first class. The only time there was a lull in First/Business class was during the recession crisis three years ago. Nigerian aviation industry, which suffered from relatively low patronage due largely to softer demand in the wake of the recession the country entered into, is picking up very fast. In the height of the recession, personal travels fell drastically, as average purchasing power dropped abysmally vis-a-vis rising cost of tickets. However, business travel continued to drive air passenger traffic across the country. Analysts adduced high operational costs as cause of the increased ticket fares, saying that aviation fuel accounts for about 40 percent of operational costs. Industry sources indicate that the price of aviation fuel currently stands at N265/l. British carrier, British Airways has consistently operated super jumbo B747-400 to Lagos from London. The aircraft type helps the airline to maximise its hold on the premium class market in Nigeria. Most Nigerians love to fly in B747 because of the space it offers customers. It is so built in a way that makes them feel like they are in their homes. Despite the fact that the B747 is considered as fuel guzzler because of its four engines and other avionics, the airline has continued to operate it. The writer, who recently flew on BA’s B747, KLM’s A330, Air France’s A330 and Virgin Atlantic’s A330 to London, Amsterdam and Toulouse respectively, observed that the First/Business Class cabins were virtually filled up mostly by Nigeria’s super rich. The same happens in the premium cabins Emirates, Delta, Qatar, Etihad, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish, among other big airlines. Not a few felt that Nigeria would have floated her own airline to take huge advantage of this premium class market or aviation as a whole. The country’s flag carrier airlines are not serious and have not shown any seriousness to tap into the huge aviation market. That may have lent credence to the support for the Federal Government to float a national carrier amid opposition from domestic airlines that had shown on several occasions that they are weak, small and fragmented to compete with the least airline operating into Nigeria. The sector is daily confronted with their agitation for one favour or the order from government forgetting that they need to show seriousness and commitment on how to do business with sound corporate governance, which they lack. Gradual disappearance In other climes across the board, first class has been steadily disappearing from commercial jets. In the long haul market, majority of the big names have substantially reduced the number of first class seats on board, often by several hundred thousand. The premium market disrupted itself when BA launched a lie flat seat in – shock horror – the business class cabin. This was around the year 2000 and since then pretty much every other major carrier has followed suit. This has made business class much more attractive, but at the same time, has devalued the offering of First. For example, British Airways in 2008 had around 560,000 first class seats across its fleet. By 2018, it had almost 100,000 less. Delta, in 2008, offered almost 400,000 first class seats. Now, they have just over 200,000. For United, 10 years ago, there were around 380,000 first class seats. Today, that number is around 180,000. Singapore, although less marked, the past decade has seen first class reduce from 150,000 to just over 90,000. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, and in this cas, it’s Emirates. In 2018, the Dubaibased carrier had around 310,000 first class seats available. Last year, this number had grown to over 600,000. Stimulating change If the demand for first class were there, airlines would provide it. So, it’s the passengers who are stimulating this change. Aren’t they demanding first class because the product is just not good anymore? A travel expert who pleaded anonymity said not at all, adding, “In fact, first class today is far better than anything we saw 10 years ago. Emirates’ A380 jumbos come complete with inflight showers, not to mention bars and lounges for the most privileged of passengers.” Maybe there aren’t enough wealthy people? But that’s not true either. According to Forbes, the stock of billionaires in the world has doubled to more than 2,100 in the past 10 years alone. Luxury travel is booming; five star hotels and resorts in Asia are expected to increase by over 150 per cent in the next 10 years. Despite these, the capacity for first class around the world has reduced substantially. And predictions for the future of first class don’t bode well. The verdict Analysts are predicting that, in less than 10 years, there won’t really be a first class any more. In the US, it’s already an endangered specie. Ten years ago, almost all of the hundreds of long haul aircraft would have had a first class cabin on board. Now, there are only around 20. Elsewhere, Air New Zealand and Turkish Airlines have scrapped first class completely and even British Airways, once the most well-known purveyor of luxury travel, have eliminated first class from their newest aircraft. Last line But if first class does disappear, won’t it present airlines with something of a problem? Emirates claim that first and business class make up around 12 per cent of the seats on their flights, but that they generate around 40 per cent of the revenue.

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